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Impertinent Questions with David Cartwright

By David Skinner | HUMANITIES, March/April 2011 | Volume 32, Number 2

The strange and fascinating life of Arthur Schopenhauer is the subject of this edition of Impertinent Questions. Professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, David Cartwright recently published the first full-fledged English-language biography of the great German philosopher in many decades. With an NEH collaborative research grant, he and Edward Erdmann are translating four of Schopenhauer’s works: The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, On the Fourfold Root and Other Writings, On Vision and Colors, and On the Will in Nature, which are being published by Cambridge and Oxford University presses.

Do people still read Schopenhauer?

Of course. My German colleagues claim he is the most widely read philosopher in the world. The Swiss historian of ideas Urs App recently told a story of discovering five Italian translations of Schopenhauer in a holiday shop on a ferry that ran to Sardinia. Schopenhauer’s wide readership, however, is largely outside of academe, but academic interest has been growing fast in the last three decades.

When was the most recent biography of Schopenhauer published?

There had been a few studies in English at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century and in the 1930s (Schopenhauer was even mentioned by Gershwin and Hart in popular songs). In 1989 and 1990, translations of Arthur Hübscher’s magnificent Denker gegen den Strom and Rüdiger Safranksi’s rich Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy were published. But it seemed time to take a more comprehensive view of his life and thought.

Schopenhauer studied zoology, but what does the bulldog ant have to do with his philosophy?

Everything! If you observe the behavior of a bulldog ant cut in two, you can understand some of Schopenhauer’s basic claims, namely, the inevitability of conflict in a world in which every individual thing struggles to snatch the matter of another, despite the metaphysical unity of being (everything is will). The head of a bisected bulldog ant bites the tail as the tail stings the head, and this battle continues until both parts are dead or other ants devour the two parts. Schopenhauer claims the will to life is a hungry will, and he reminds us that we are the walking graveyards of thousands of living beings.

I don’t know how else to put this: Was Schopenhauer a cat person or a dog person?

A dog person. He owned a series of poodles, calling each “Atma” formally and “Butz” informally. He once told a dinner companion that when his dog was mischievous, he would scold it by saying, “You are not a dog, but a human being, a human being,” and he claimed that this would shame the dog.

Schopenhauer played the flute, a biographical detail that really struck Nietzsche. How so?

Nietzsche used Schopenhauer’s flute-playing and faith in morality to question whether Schopenhauer was really a pessimist. I think that Nietzsche was trying to redeem the man he once called his “only educator, the great Arthur Schopenhauer,” and that he wanted to find that Schopenhauer agreed with him at some unconscious level. Nietzsche also claimed that Schopenhauer’s hatred of women and Hegel seduced Schopenhauer back to life.

Schopenhauer often seemed distrustful of humanity, but his philosophy is greatly animated by a concern for the suffering of others. Please explain.

Schopenhauer thought of his philosophy as an abstract act of love for all those who suffer, but in his actual, everyday life, he tended to act according to the motto “man is the wolf to men.” He argued that the primary motive of humans was self-interest; a motive that ignores the interests of others and leads to conduct that sacrifices the well-being of others for personal gain. His behavior expressed these views—cautious, suspicious, and closed.

At one point in his life Schopenhauer took to visiting inmates of a mental ward. How come?

Schopenhauer’s curiosity was edacious, plus there was a history of mental illness in his paternal family line. It is also likely that he suffered from depression. Consequently, he had some personal reasons for visiting mental wards. Moreover, he was philosophically interested in the connection between genius and madness, and a key element in his philosophy is that theory must be based ultimately on experience and observation.

What did Schopenhauer learn from the Upanishads?

That is the million dollar question. He said that his doctrines could not have originated without the Upanishads, Plato, and Kant casting their rays of light simultaneously into a single mind. How to trace back one of these rays to the Upanishads is very difficult.

Why did Schopenhauer think of himself as homeless?

He claimed he was homeless from the age of five, when his family fled Danzig to avoid Prussian control. Toward the end of life, he viewed his death as a return to the place he started out, after completing his mission to solve the ever-disquieting problem of existence. So it seemed that he did not view the world itself as his home. This perspective is mirrored in his claim that for the person who has obtained redemption, there is no will, no representation, no world. Also, he was a renter all of his adult life.

There seems to be a connection between his strained relations with his mother and his uncharitable views of womankind. Comment?

Women were a problem for Schopenhauer both personally and philosophically. And he thought that his mother was a bad wife and bad mother; although he thought that she was a good writer (something he never told her). By the time he wrote the nasty little essay “On Women” in 1851, he had nothing but terrible relations with women. Toward the end of his life, however, he was reported to have said he had more to say about women and that when a woman succeeds in raising herself above the crowd, she grows ceaselessly and greater than a man.

Schopenhauer wrote with great literary force. In this, was he merely a product of his time and place?

Just the opposite. He described Kant’s writings as brilliantly dry, but he thought Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel used torturous, jargon-laden writing styles to conceal the poverty of their thought. Schopenhauer’s wonderfully fluid and relatively clear prose represents a decided break with tradition, and a commitment to write not simply for the academy and professors of philosophy, but for the broader world.

What’s your favorite archive?

Those archives located at the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Endnotes or footnotes?

Both. I even have the ardent desire to have footnotes for my endnotes and endnotes for my footnotes.

David Skinner is editor of humanities.